Bullying And Sleep: A Guide For Children And Parents

Last updated: July 3, 2019

Imagine this scenario: you are in a bad mood because you didn’t sleep well last night. The coworker/classmate you don’t particularly like does something wrong and it triggers you to tell him off or make harsh and inconsiderate comments. This means your poor sleep indirectly caused you to be rude.

The Link Between Bullying and Poor Sleep

There seems to be a link between bullying and poor sleep. Bullies usually have untidy sleep schedules which likely cause them to be less sensitive and more aggressive. Victims suffer from stress and worry. This leads to restless sleep or insomnia. Such sleep problems make them tired and unable to respond properly to bullying. That’s how they continue to be the victims.

bullying and sleep

Bullying usually happens in middle school, but also goes on through high school and happens at one’s workplace. With the rise of technology and the internet, bullying has spread out and entered our private lives. Cyberbullying happens through hurtful online comments and messages.

Studies show that bullying can be prevented by teaching young people what healthy sleep habits are and how much sleep is important. This guide offers tips for children and parents on how to deal with bullying and get a good night’s rest for both – bullies and victims.

How does bullying affect sleep?

Sleep problems are found in all who take part in bullying – bullies, victims, and bully-victims (those who are bullied but also bully others). These are some of the sleep problems found in everyone affected by bullying:

  • Insomnia (inability to fall or stay asleep)
  • Bedtime fears
  • Short sleep time
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Parasomnias (e.g. sleepwalking, night terrors, bedwetting/enuresis, sleep bruxism/teeth grinding)
  • Poor quality of sleep
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Sleep-disordered breathing

A high number of those involved in bullying are likely to frequently use sleep medications or other sleep aids.

If bullying goes on for a long time it can also cause severe sleep deprivation because teens who need about 9 hours of sleep get significantly less (about six or seven, according to some studies). It doesn’t only negatively impact their physical and mental health. Chronic sleep problems go hand in hand with the feelings of tension, anxiety, and depression along with poor attention and memory problems.

These further negatively reflect on a student’s grades in school, sports achievements, and social life.

According to one study, more than half of each group (bullies, victims, and bully-victims) report poor sleep quality. Over 90% of them claimed they had daytime dysfunction due to tiredness. About a quarter of high school students who weren’t involved in bullying have poor sleep. It is interesting that the number of poor sleepers doubled for those involved in bullying.

The following two charts taken from the study show the percentages of victims and bullies who had sleep problems. They are divided according to the type and frequency of bullying behavior.

These clearly show us that the students experience worse sleep when more bullying takes place  – and it is the same for victims and bullies. The percentages are quite stable for both sides, so we can conclude that it is not only victims that suffer the consequences of bullying after they return home. It is interesting that bullies have poorer sleep as well.

The question that we have to ask ourselves is – do bullies have poor sleep because they bullied others or does their poor sleep make them bully more?

Can poor sleep cause bullying?

According to some studies, it seems that poor sleep can lead to bullying in some individuals. They may react more angrily and aggressively. This is because sleep-deprived people can’t control their emotions well and those who already have (genetic or other) predispositions towards aggressiveness are likely to turn to verbal or physical misconduct.

Bullies and bully/victims typically go to bed later than victims or neutral (not involved in bullying) students. Another interesting fact is that sleep inconsistency increased aggressive behavior.

Poor sleep may be caused by a behavioral problem (using a phone or a computer until late). It can be an external problem (if the bully is also a victim of family abuse or he/she sleeps in poor conditions – too loud or damp room, for example). Another reason for poor sleep may be sleep-disordered breathing. Aggressive children and adolescents are likely to snore or have other types of breathing problems. One of them is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

One of the consequences of these sleep problems is impairment in the part of the brain that deals with emotions and stress response.

Some studies show that introducing behavioral therapy to bullies and teaching them how to sleep better actually helps reduce bullying. Being well rested can result in changing the bully’s perception and understanding of how bullying impacts others. It also leads to a better and non-aggressive emotional response to others.

How to sleep better? Advice for parents, victims, and bullies

If you have recognized that your child is involved in bullying, you should address the core of the problem first – find out what the main reason for bullying/being bullied is and address it. Encourage your child to talk about their experience and teach them how to behave properly (control their emotions if they are the bully or how to stand up for themselves if they are the victim, for example). You may want to consult a professional who can help your child and you.

Try to spend more time with your child if you are usually on a busy schedule. Talk to them and encourage them and help them get over the difficult period.

Other things that can help your child sleep well are these:

  • Whether your child is a bully or a victim, it is a good idea to restrict their access to social media and digital gadgets. They will be able to relax and wind down in the evening and will be away from potential cyberbullying.
  • Make room for sports activities during the daytime. This will ease stress and improve the quality of the night’s sleep.
  • Watch your child’s diet. Don’t let them have any stimulants like caffeine (in sodas, chocolate, energy drinks) in the evening. They can have a light snack prior to bedtime but avoid having heavy meals. For relaxation let them have chamomile, mint or nettle tea.
  • Make a pleasant sleep environment for your child. Make sure the room is dark, cool (about 65°F), and quiet. Free the bedroom of any distractions (TV, games, and gadgets).
  • Try to keep a regular sleep/wake schedule. Many children and adolescents sleep less than 8 hours per week and then sleep in (9 or more hours) at the weekend. This is not healthy behavior and can be a cause for bullies to be more aggressive and victims to be more anxious and depressed.

What bullying is and how to recognize it

Bullying includes physical or verbal attack with the aim to intimidate or harm someone who is seen as weaker or physically smaller. It is a repetitive negative action against another person.

There are several types of bullying. For example, physical bullying can manifest through hitting, pinching, pushing, kicking, etc. Verbal bullying includes name-calling, teasing, and threatening. Cyberbullying is a type of verbal bullying that takes place online – over messages or comments on internet websites. Their aim is to threaten, harass, or intimidate.

Gossiping, turning others against the victim, and sabotage are not direct; but they still fall into bullying.

Is my child being bullied?

While some children will come home and instantly tell their parents what happened to them, others will choose not to reveal the bullies due to fear of further bullying. Here are some of the telltale signs that a child is being bullied:

  • Bruises, scratches, damaged/stolen items, and/or torn clothes
  • Asking for extra allowance or stealing (in order to give the money away to bullies)
  • Headaches, stomach pain, and/or loss of appetite
  • Nightmares, going to bed too early, having problems falling asleep, and being tired during the day
  • Being sad and anxious
  • Poorer grades at school
  • Fear of school/refusing to go to school
why students don't ask for help

Figure 3. Why students don’t ask for help. Source: reacttobullying.org

Cyberbullying

Today many children and almost all adolescents have smartphones which they increasingly use to socialize on the internet websites or over chatting apps and text messages.

This means that young people may experience bullying on their social accounts even when they come home from school. Moreover, letting a child use the phone for a long time is highly likely to make them a bully or a bully-victim.

Sometimes school bullying and cyberbullying are not related. One study on cyberbullying has shown that most of the cyber-bullies actually do not take part in school bullying. Also, it seems that there are more instances of cyberbullying today than the actual school bullying.

Cyberbullying can seriously impair the mental health of children and adolescents as it remains online for a long time – and it is accessible by the victim, bully, and probably many others. Instead of relaxing and changing the course of one’s thoughts, a victim can spend sleepless nights in front of a screen re-reading negative comments. This increases anxiety and wreaks havoc in a child’s sleep/wake rhythm.

Rude and hostile messages and posts, taking over someone’s account and posting false, embarrassing claims while pretending to be them – these are some of the ways in which cyberbullying works.

Social media is proven to have a negative impact on our sleep (first through screen light which postpones sleep time and then through dopamine release that increases our alertness). It takes an even worse turn for the victim if paired with bullying.

On the other hand, bullies may enjoy their own online actions so much that it may be a reason for them to stay up longer thinking up and writing malicious posts.

Children who face cyberbullying are not only at the danger of having poor sleep. They also tend to be overly anxious, depressed, and even suicidal.

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Additional resources

  1. Sleep disturbances in adolescents involved in bullying. https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/40/suppl_1/A361/3782422 Accessed May 10, 2019.
  2. Bullying and Victimization Among Children https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3766526/ Accessed May 10, 2019.
  3. Sleep it off: Bullying and sleep disturbances in adolescents https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140197118301477 Accessed May 10, 2019.
  4. Poor sleep as a potential causal factor in aggression and violence https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1389945712000123?via%3Dihub Accessed May 10, 2019.
  5. Is there an association between verbal school bullying and possible sleep bruxism in adolescents? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28214362 Accessed May 10, 2019.
  6. Kids Who Bully, Have Aggressive Behaviors Are Twice as Likely to Have Sleep Problems, U-M Study Says https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/kids-who-bully-have-aggressive-behaviors-are-twice-as-likely-to-have-sleep-problems-u-m-study-says-122900439.html Accessed May 10, 2019.

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